Monday, March 31, 2008


Once won an Oscar for Best Original Song. That's fitting, since the film is more about the music than the story. In fact, it might be fitting to consider Once a visual LP.

Once introduces Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, though their character names are listed as simply "Guy" and "Girl," and it's really tempting to read this movie as their autobiography. That's not entirely wrong, as Irglová, a Czech immigrant, plays a Czech immigrant. And Hansard, who got his start as a street musician in Dublin, plays a street musician in Dublin. And the two are responsible for almost every song in the film.

So maybe it's not entirely inappropriate to see this movie as a bit of a joint autobiography. But there's another temptation in this film: As it's a semi-autobiography about Guy and Girl--a Guy and Girl who are dating in real life--it's very tempting to see this as a prototypical love story. It's not. Love has its place in the story, but it's not a love story. It's all about the music. (In fact, Hansard and Irglová didn't start dating until after Once started filming.)

If the story is about the music, it's only appropriate to ask: How's the music? It's quite good. The Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" is the best of the bunch, but there's not a dud to be found here. The sound isn't all that dissimilar to Dashboard Confessional, if you just replace the adolescent whine with Irish-lilted adult poignancy. The focus is on the music's authenticity, as evidenced by Hansard's absurdly beat-up acoustic guitar. The authenticity comes through, though. Hansard and Irglová seem like two people who genuinely like making music, and who genuinely like each other.

The low-budget authenticity is not just Hansard's guitar; the entire film cost only $150,000 to make, so you can feel good about shelling money out for it in a way that you might not feel good about paying to see, say, Shrek the Third (which cost $160 million to make, or about one thousand times as much as Once). In the end, your $4-5 rental will get you an hour and a half worth of good music made by endearing people, and that's worth about a 9 on the 22 scale.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Batman Begins

Unlike a lot of people (I suspect), I have a very, very specific idea of what kind of art I love best: a subversive/dark sensibility, with a strong commercial bent. This is what I like about old spaghetti westerns, The Warriors, Fight Club, etc. It's also what I love about Christopher Nolan, and my favorite of his films (so far), Batman Begins.
Had you told me a couple of years ago that the director of Memento and Following was going to revive the Bat-franchise, I would have thought you crazy. Nolan seemed like too much of an artiste for lowly comic-book adaptations. Not that there's anything wrong with Batman--inner comic book geek aside, Batman is arguably one of the greatest fictional characters ever created. He has gone strong as a media icon for over seven decades now, with literally thousands of stories written about him, and has thusly been given levels of characterization that dwarf "greater" characters. The billionaire whose philantrophist parents were gunned down before his eyes, Bruce Wayne dedicates himself to a war on crime, while trying to keep what soul he has left intact, fighting conflict all the while. Does Batman attract greater trouble to Gotham by his flamboyant nature? Is it right for him to enlist partners (especially younger ones) in his war on crime? Will he ever be free of the Bat, and be able to live a "normal" life as Bruce Wayne? When you take a closer look, it's really not hard to figure out what drew Nolan to the material.
Batman Begins gives us a take on the Dark Knight previously unseen in film: We open with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a Chinese prison, suffering from nightmares and beating the crap out of would-be bullies in the prison yard. How did he get there? A large portion of the first half of the film is told seamlessly in flashback, detailing Bruce's love of his parents and trauma over their death, his friendship with Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and his failed attempt at avenging their murder. Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) of the mysterious League of Shadows recruits him, and helps complete his training, especially in terms of mastering his fear. But the League's goals don't meet with Bruce's, and he destroys their headquarters, returning to Gotham to begin his campaign to save the city.
The script of this film, by Nolan and comic veteran David Goyer, is tightly crafted, and is both artistic and structured. There are some new twists to this somewhat-origin story (Ra's Al Ghul being the primary threat), which pays tribute to Frank Miller's (300, Sin City) Batman: Year One in many of its elements (corrupt cop Flass, Batman's abortive first crime-fighting attempts). Along with the script, and the lovingly rendered performances of its characters drive this film: Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the mob boss of Gotham, who seems to have stepped out of a Warner Bros gangster film from the 40s. Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache), Bruce's loving father who informed the type of man that his son would become. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), the corrupt psychiatrist who becomes the Scarecrow. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the kindly, Morgan Freemanesque inventor who helps Bruce along his path. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), seemingly the one honest cop in Gotham City. Don't get me wrong, Christian Bale is more than competent in this film, but there's a difference between being able to share a scene with the likes of Roache and Wilkinson, and then there's the altogether different matter of outshining them.
The film is a treat to look at, thanks to the masterful cinematography of Nolan regular Wally Pfister and editor Lee Smith. The things I would normally complain about (jerkily shot fight scenes) are actually assets here that enhance the story. Gotham City has never looked better. There are things about the movie that bug me (C'mon......would Batman really be so reckless with the safety of police (or anybody), even if a life was at stake? I don't think so...), but they are few and far between. Batman Begins is a near-perfect film, but it has some serious room for improvement. More/better action. A story that's no parts origin. No Katie Holmes. Hopefully, July's The Dark Knight will deliver on that. But Batman Begins is still worth a by-no-means-shabby 20 out of 22.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Before Sunrise

Thankfully, I've recently connected with a coworker who seems to have the same exact movie taste as I do. This is nice because I can get film recommendations I know are quality, and I also don't have to think very hard when making recommendations of my own. My introduction to the movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are a result of this alliance.

For some, I think this film is probably rather polarizing, either you love it or hate it. It's different from nearly all of the romantic movies out there because it doesn't trifle with it's characters too much. It doesn't set us up to believe that they are currently with the wrong person, or try to ruffle us by creating a far-fetched misunderstanding. Before Sunrise just allows us to follow a pair of travelers as they get to know each other more and more intimately. The nice thing is that we are introduced to the characters, Celine and Jesse, at the same point that they are introduced to each other. They are both traveling on a train in Europe and happen to strike up a conversation. Jesse needs to get off the train in Vienna so that he can catch his flight back to the United States in the morning, but is so intrigued by this connection he's made with Celine that he asks her to get off the train with him so they can hang out and continue their conversation. Both are awkward and hesitant about it, but see it as an opportunity that neither want to pass up.

So for the rest of that day and through the night, Jesse and Celine walk around the city, go into bars, tour parks, all the while getting to know each other. The end.

Seriously, that's pretty much it. If you're looking for an exciting or action-packed plot, try pretty much any other movie. Now, I wouldn't want you to think that because of this fact I enjoyed the movie less. On the contrary, I loved this film. It was ripe with the realness of a new relationship, with a clumsy beginning and tense, and goose-pimpley sensations throughout. Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke, is an American in the middle of young adulthood angst in thinking about his relationships and his future (thus the trip to Europe). I wouldn't say that Jesse is the most loveable male romantic lead, but I like that. He's clearly flawed, pessimistic to a fault and sometimes letting his opinions run away with him. French actress Julie Delpy is Celine, and she is a delightful match for the character of Jesse. She's an ambitious young French woman with a "seize the day" attitude towards life and a hint of a superstitious nature.

They talk about many topics, because the conversation is really what drives the movie. After looking through some other reviews, I found that the common complaint is that all Jesse and Celine do is talk. Don't get me wrong, things happen throughout the night, but the things that they share with each other through conversation are central. This is the same for the movie's sequel, Before Sunset, in which (slight spoiler!) the two meet up once again at a later point in Europe. While the plot is similar, I highly recommend the sequel as an excellent continuation of Jesse and Celine's story.

Rating: 13

Before Sunrise is a memorable experience. Hawke and Delpy easily pulled me into their chance, short-lived meeting. What I like so much about this movie is its honesty. It doesn't try to fool us, take us for a ride, or make us believe in something that doesn't exist. It just takes a slice from the pie of life and lets us sample the flavor.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries

I don't know if it was my love for history or my love for musicals that drew me to The Motorcycle Diaries. For those who are not as into musicals as I am, Che Guevara, historically known as the leader of the Cuban Revolution, is the main character of this film but also plays a big part in the musical Evita. No matter what drew me into this story I was still very much captured by it. The Motorcycle Diaries is the story of Che when he decided to have some last moments of fun on a road trip before graduating and becoming a doctor. The script is actually based on the diary that Che wrote in throughout the trip.
Che (Gael García Bernal) and his friend Alberto (Rodrigo De La Serna)set off on a trip to travel from Argentina to Venezuela. At the beginning of the journey, they have somewhat similar hopes for the trip, but as they continue on their journey they realize that they need to grow up and each decides what the path of his life is going to be. García Bernal does an amazing job of turning subtlety into art. His performance is not enhanced by any kind of special effects and the only thing available to him is his ability to act, which he certainly proves he has in this film. De La Serna provides levity as Che's fun-loving and woman-loving friend.
This is a very simple story. Two friends decide to go on an adventure to see what else is out there in the world and they are never the same afterward. It is an exceedingly emotionally gripping story that has laughs thrown in for good measure. In fact I would say that the amount of laughs that are in this film was just the right amount. In many films, too many laughs are put in to ease the tension, but this film actually lets the audience feel other things. The scenery from the film was amazing. There were many shots of the landscape of the countries that just added to the simplistic beauty of this movie.
Everything in this movie seemed to work for me. The acting was as beautiful and compelling as the scenery and the plot. I was absolutely blown away by this film and I was not expecting it. This film also had a lingering effect of the emotion in the film. I was amazed at the story that it portrayed and feel it fully deserves the 18 I'm giving it.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

21 Grams

The best movies combine a deep and philosophical message with an entertaining story. You feel as though you might have been enriched as a person, or you see something from a new angle, plus you feel good about having spent the last two hours just sitting in a chair. But sometimes a movie just isn’t built to do both things, so it just focuses on doing one of them well. Movies like Independence Day and The Princess Bride go for story over meaning, and I think I would prefer that if it has to go down just one of those two roads, that it be the one marked “story.” Movies like 21 Grams choose the other road, the one marked “meaning,” and generally neglect the story, or make it very simple.

The thing about 21 Grams, though, is that it’s even pretty hazy on the meaning part. It’s definitely not popcorn fare, and I don’t think friends will be sitting around with nothing to do and saying, “Hey, let’s watch 21 Grams! That’ll be fun!” The message it conveyed was actually valuable, and it (I guess) was “life carries on.” The title is a reference to the work of Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who in the 1900s attempted to quantify the human soul by measuring a person’s weight just before death and after. The movie just states as fact that a person loses 21 grams at the time of their death, when actually Dr. MacDougall’s findings were that different people lose different amounts, and are widely considered to have little if any scientific value.

What I got out of the movie, or what I think it was saying, was that 21 grams goes on forever, shifting from body to body in an endless cycle, and that even though it’s such a small mass, it lasts forever. This is a very Buddhist idea, given a somewhat more palatable and applicable packaging.

Alejandro González Iñárritu directs the film in a non-linear, voyeuristic fashion, and one which I found to be pretty annoying. The film jumps between multiple storylines and characters, which is fine, but it has no regard for the usual beginning-middle-end paradigm. This goes beyond even what Pulp Fiction did. It’s all well and good to think outside the box, but not to leave the viewer behind in pursuit of one’s originality. I can see what Iñárritu was doing, though. By presenting events out of order, he created a disconnection in the storyline, one which the viewer is constantly trying to resolve. As the viewer, I was able to resolve it, but only a short time before another disconnection was presented. After awhile, it got tiring.

Originality gone awry aside, the three main actors in 21 Grams did wonderful jobs. Sean Penn plays his heart transplant patient with his usual subtlety and skill, though he’s not treading ground that we haven’t seen him tread before. Naomi Watts plays her instant childless widow with vast amounts of honesty, and really puts herself on the line. Her character is pretty predictable, though, which is her biggest failing, and sometimes her actions just don’t make sense. On the other hand, she goes for realism over melodrama, which is good. But the real jewel is the always-great Benicio del Toro, who plays a multiple convict/outreach preacher. His character has to struggle with the most universal things, and faces demons that, despite his unusual circumstances, we can all identify with a little.

21 Grams has a lot of problems, but some of them were just “that’s not my bag” things, and they might be someone else’s bag. Evidently they are, because this movie was nominated for a boatload of awards, mostly for the acting. Really, the acting was the best thing about this movie. It was awesome enough to overcome the annoying storytelling style, but just barely.

Iconic Lines:
“So this is death’s waiting room.”
“That’s a lie. Life does not just ‘go on.’”
“Jesus didn’t come to free us from pain. He came to give us the strength to bear it."

22 rating: 3

Particle Man